When the Jackson County volleyball team learned it would be down two starters for its first-round region tournament match, the players decided to be proactive.
“The first thing the girls wanted to do was get in the gym and have a practice and kind of work the kinks out,” Panther coach Ron Fowler said.
That initiative paid off. The Panthers swept Clarke Central 3-0 (25-11, 25-15, 25-14) Tuesday (Oct. 13) at home to advance to the Region 8-AAAAA semifinals and clinch a spot in the state tournament. Jackson County (20-11) also reached the 20-win mark for the fourth-straight year with the victory.
The Panthers were shorthand due to quarantine-related issues.
“We’ve been working out the kinks the past couple of days, and I think with each practice the girls’ confidence got a little bit better,” Fowler said. “I really liked when practice ended yesterday where I thought we were at. I thought our confidence was very high, and the girls were ready to play today.”
Jackson County dominated the first set, and won convincingly in the other two.
With the Panthers up 8-4 in the first set, Ansley Herrin served up three-straight aces to help ignite a 10-4 run. Jackson County closed out the set by earning six of the last seven points.
The second and third sets were close around the midpoint of each before the Panthers eventually took over in both. Leading just 12-11 in set two, Jackson County reeled off five-straight points and never looked back in a 25-15 win. Clarke Central pulled within a pair of points, 13-11, in set three, but the Gladiators served into the net on the next point, which began a 7-0 spurt for the Panthers. Katie Hitt then had a pair of kills late to help put the set away. The match ended with a Clarke Central serve into the net.
Fowler said the team made a concerted effort to improve upon its three-set win over Clarke Central in the regular season. The Panthers won that match 25-18, 25-20, 25-17 back on Sept. 28.
Tuesday’s win was delivered in much more convincing fashion.
“One of the things we kind of went over with the girls before the match was our scores from last time,” Fowler said. “So our goal was, every set, to make sure our scores were better than the last time we played them. And we met that goal — and then some — tonight.
“We tried to take it, obviously, one point at a time, one set at at time, but our girls seemed to respond to every one of the goals and wanted to prove that no matter what lineup we put on the court, we’re a good team. It’s just a matter of us playing and executing.”
Jackson County entered the region tournament on the heels of three consecutive grueling matches against the region’s best programs, having faced Greenbrier, Apalachee and Loganville in succession. The Apalachee and Loganville matches both went five sets.
“We kind of played the gauntlet of the region all back-to-back-to-back, which was very tough,” Fowler said. “But I also think we grew a lot as a team in those matches. We told the girls all year those are the matches that are fun to be a part of.”
Jackson County will now face Apalachee Thursday (Oct. 15) on the road in the 8-AAAAA tournament semifinals (match time to be announced). The Panthers lost narrowly to the Wildcats, 25-22, 18-25, 25-22, 26-28, 11-15 last Tuesday (Oct. 6).
“We thought regardless of the outcome last Tuesday, we’d see each other Thursday,” Fowler said. “The good thing is that we’re back in the playoffs. We’re at least guaranteed a spot in the playoffs, and now we’ve got to go fight and try to keep climbing the ladder.”
All four remaining teams will also play Saturday at Greenbrier for seeding purposes. The third-fourth place match is at 1 p.m., while the championship is at 3 p.m.
NOTES: Sydney McCutcheon (first team), Sophie Harris (second team), Carys Thao (second team), Cadence Thao (second team) and Katie Hitt (second team) were named to the All-Region 8-AAAAA volleyball team.